Tara Oceans” Visits Savannah
By Catherine Rendón
(translation by the author).
Perhaps one of the best known sea voyages of recent times is that of Charles Darwin and HMS the “Beagle” (1831-36). Darwin, then 22, was hired as the expedition’s naturalist to keep notes on all he saw. Although the journey was intended to make a survey of the South American coastline, the “Beagle’s” discoveries had greater consequences. Darwin’s notes and observations about biology, geology, anthropology and other subjects resulted in his groundbreaking work on evolution.
In late January 2012 a 120-ton aluminum sailing vessel made its way past Fort Pulaski and the sound of canon fire to River Street. “Tara Oceans” as this unusual research vessel is called had just come from the United States’s Pacific coast to the Atlantic in the span of almost two months. This meant leaving San Diego and crossing the Central American isthmus at Panama before heading up to the east coast of the United States. With links to one of the South’s most enduring epics, “Tara”, was named after Margaret Mitchell’s Georgia plantation, so the ship’s arrival in Savannah was somehow fitting.
Aboard it were an inter-generational crew of scientists, sailors and others, who have been fortunate enough to travel on one of the final legs of a 2.5 year-long journey around the world which began in 2009. “Tara” began her journey in Brittany and headed for the South Pacific before crossing into the Americas in search of evidence of global warming among other things. Fortunately, governments still support such endeavors, as do universities and research institutions, which have used “Tara” as their research vessel (RV) on this expedition. Its purpose is to collect plankton, krill, fish larvae, and more from the world’s many seas and in doing so also to educate audiences along the way about our endangered planet and the urgency of looking after our oceans and atmosphere.
Several local universities and schools were invited to meet the scientists aboard and tour “Tara” during its brief stay in Savannah before its next stop, New York. I accompanied visiting professor of coastal engineering, Dr. Emre Otay, presently on sabbatical at Georgia Tech Savannah from Turkey’s University of the Bosporus, and his two daughters, Lara (12) and Zeynep (9) presently students at Hesse Elementary. Dr. Otay hoped this visit would inspire his daughters with the possibilities open to them. We were received by Dr. Gipsy Lima Méndez, a Cuban scientist who had recently arrived from her lab at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium. An analyst of biological data Lima Méndez is part of a bigger international team trying to make sense of all the material “Tara” and its team has collected. Lima Méndez commented on how Savannah was in many ways reminiscent of the Caribbean, mainly because of its relaxed atmosphere and pleasant climate.
During our time on board we were shown the wet lab on “Tara’s” deck where scientists were examining water samples collected by the rosette, or carousel, a large cylindrical metal frame about the size of a large thrash bin with six to eight sensors attached for the measurement of physical, biological and chemical parameters. Below deck, we were shown a cabin which had been converted into an “optical laboratory” (the “dry lab”) where scientists analyze and photograph the freshly sampled microorganisms with cameras and microscopes. In the mess room’s flat screen, magnified images of viruses, bacteria, diatoms, copepods and “sea dust” (microscopic wonders usually invisible to the naked eye) are sometimes exhibited. The young captain, Loïc Valletta, greeted us and made us feel welcome, even though there can be no doubt that having visitors on board must get awfully tiresome after a while. A few days’ after our visit Captain Valletta had to analyze charts showing the currents, and help the scientists on board choose their next sampling stations on their way up to New York City and across the North Atlantic.
“Tara’s” crew normally numbers 14-15 with rotating visiting scientists and journalists who are recording the ship’s voyage around the world and gathering hard to collect data. Given modern transportation and technology, schedules and desire to share resources and opportunities, “Tara’s” team far exceeds the small number of the crew since many of the world’s most important scientific institutions are collaborating in cross-disciplinary oceanographic projects and sampling. U.S. institutions like MIT, Woods Hole, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the universities of Hawaii, Arizona, and Maine, among others are part of the team.
An international community of scientists (from Germany, Ireland, Spain, Monaco, Italy, New Zealand, Switzerland, etc.) and others are working together to better understand many topics like coral, plankton and issues related to “global warming” and water pollution. Various European laboratories and universities and their counterparts in Asia and the Americas have pooled resources to better understand a variety of aspects which affect not only the planet’s well- being but that of each one of us. Much of the material collected during the last two and a half years has yet to be analyzed and one hopes that important future papers, discoveries, and policy will result from “Tara’s” findings and team work.
Unlike Darwin’s time, when women were rarely seen aboard ships and definitely discouraged from belonging to the scientific community, “Tara’s” team has a large number of women scientists working in a wide variety of capacities. During my own time aboard “Tara” in Savannah I met Dr Steffi Kandels-Lewis, of the University of Heidelberg, scientific operations manager of the expedition, who works with Dr Eric Karsenti of the European Molecular Biology Lab. Dr. Daniele Iudicone of Naples was aboard as was Dr. Laurence Garczarek of the Biological Station of Roscoff, who has long been in pursuit of a giant virus (known as girus) which has unique genes not found in other life forms. Dr Garczarek never imagined she would be working in marine biology but has joined “Tara” during various stops during the ship’s two and half year-long voyage.
After leaving New York “Tara” and her team headed for Bermuda via the mysterious “Sargasso Sea.” An international team of scientists who mostly happen to be women (Karp-Boss, Ferrera and Dimier-Hugueney) are trying to discover the reason eddies and whirlpools in this part of the North Atlantic are so rich in chlorophyll. This, a rich source of food for zooplankton, is vital for the healthy life of a larger eco-system.
Earlier in Feburary, Vincent Hilaire, one of “Tara’s” many chroniclers wrote the following in the ship’s online log:
“The current of the Gulf Stream is 300 times more powerful than the Amazon River, and 5,000 times more powerful than the Rhone. Its average flow is 55 million cubic meters per second…” Our climate in Europe depends on this current. It’s also a major player in the global circulation of water on our planet…”
You too can log into “Tara’s” website and see if she is back at her hometown of Lorient and what new developments have taken place since this article went to press. Given the strange climate our planet is experiencing this winter “Tara’s” teams work might shed some light on why it has been so mild in Savannah and so cold in Mallorca. Be sure to keep an eye out for the upcoming visit of a three-day long riverfront festival in May which will kick off the Tall Ships Challenge. Eleven tall ships have already agreed to come to Savannah and these will be berthed on both sides of the Savannah River at Hutchinson Island and River Street. Hope to see you there!